Last fall, while reporting on the U.N. General Assembly, I had the chance to meet a number of Iranian journalists accompanying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his trip to New York.
At the time, these young Iranian writers told me they were excited about the revolution in Egypt and the possibility of normalized relations between Cairo and Tehran. They were eager to hear about my travels in Egypt, a country they had never seen, and were especially interested in learning about the tomb of Iran’s last monarch in Cairo.
To my surprise, my revelation to them that Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s tomb inside a mosque is quite humble was greeted with sighs of sadness. “May he rest in peace,” one young journalist told me. “We enjoyed such respect during his reign. Now the world treats us like thieves!”
Since Iran’s 1979 revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the Iranian public has lived in a state of perpetual stress. Besides the violence of the post-revolutionary era, Iranians witnessed the humiliating hostage crisis with the United States, suffered a systematic purge of the political opposition by the Islamic leadership, and endured an eight-year war with Iraq that shattered the Iranian economy and damaged the national psyche.
I was six years old at the time of the Iranian revolution and have some memories of what life was like before the Iranian monarchy was abolished. My brother, born three years after the revolution, is part of a generation of Iranians who have experienced nothing but war, economic malaise and the threat of renewed conflict.
Now Iranians are suffering once again as the world debates their government’s nuclear ambitions. The possibility of a military attack against Iran’s nuclear installations has left ordinary Iranians — already struggling to deal with the impact of heavy economic sanctions — terrified of a new threat of war. It is this economic misery and constant fear that has left so many Iranians, including those born after the departure of the shah, so nostalgic for the past.
The first, second and now third generations of young Iranians born after 1979 have no memory of the country’s pre-revolutionary era. All they hear are stories from parents or family friends describing how “during the time of the shah” Iranians could travel anywhere they wanted and never had to line up for hours outside foreign embassies to beg for visas, like so many young people do today. These young Iranians — roughly 70 percent of the population — now listen with pride as their elders talk of the country’s once-strong national currency and regional prowess.
And so, more than 30 years after his death, the shah’s strong nationalistic sensibility has made him more popular than ever. The post-revolution generations have only heard their country referred to as part of an “axis of evil” that supports terrorists and deserves to be bombarded. They have come to idealize Iran’s era of monarchy, associating the shah and his wife with social freedom, economic stability and regional power.
Today, life in the Islamic Republic is more difficult than it has been since the eight-year war with Iraq. International economic sanctions, the harshest since the 1979 revolution, have squeezed the struggling middle class even further. Ordinary Iranians live in constant fear that Israel — one of Tehran’s strongest political allies before 1979 — may soon decide to bomb them. So many of the country’s best and brightest students have left Iran to study abroad, and are certainly not willing to come back.
Yet talk to any ordinary Iranian, and you will find the vast majority still admire President Barack Obama. In spite of the Obama administration’s tough financial sanctions, the public places much of the blame for their economic distress on the government in Tehran.
Every day, at the end of her Islamic prayers, a friend’s mother — a 67-year old resident of north Tehran — prays for President Obama’s good health and re-election. For her, as for many Iranians, the U.S. president represents the final barrier between Iran and a potential Israeli attack.
A year and a half since the breakdown of talks over Iran’s contested nuclear program and the imposition of devastating economic sanctions, Iran has returned to the negotiating table. After the first round of nuclear talks in Istanbul last month ended on a positive note, Iranians are hopeful that Wednesday’s discussions between the P5-plus-1 countries (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) and Iran in Baghdad will pave the way for further progress. For them, the outcome of the nuclear talks is more important than ever.
If talks go well and P5-plus-1 negotiators agree to perhaps lift sanctions against the Iranian Central Bank in exchange for Iran’s suspension of higher grade uranium enrichment, then ordinary Iranians can breath a little easier.
A favorable outcome will certainly boost Obama’s strong popularity on the streets of Iran. But if negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program break down and the European Union follows through with an oil embargo set to start in July, life for the post-revolutionary generations of Iranians will become even more miserable.
In the meantime, the Iranian people will continue to find solace in remembering their country’s pre-revolutionary past. All they can do is keep praying for a better future, and hope that after 33 years of revolution, they may finally be able to sleep in peace, without fear.
Camelia Entekhabifard, the author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth — a Memoir of Iran, is a journalist reporting on Iranian and Afghan affairs.